Thom Puckey

Marco Senaldi on Thom Puckey's work for The Prato Project

Puckey presents his series of recent sculptures, four of which are presented here for the first time, in a very coherent manner. The individual female figures, young and completely or partially nude, are invariably and disquietingly accompanied by the presence of modern weaponry. Sometimes their derivation from classical models is rather evident, as can be seen in A.V. with Knife and RPG-7 (2009), which recalls the famous posture of Ingres' Oedipus ; at her feet, as if derived from a previous age, there is still a tree trunk taken from ancient Greek art. Another example can be seen in Mitrailleuse (2008) where the prone figure is elongated in a moving pose that recalls certain nymphs or sylphs of neoclassical statuary. However a series of blatant facts make it clear that we cannot take Puckey as a mere quoter of the past: the meticulous rendering of the firearms and blades dressing the figures, together with the taste for anatomical detail, the sometimes agressive poses, the bodies themselves sometimes amputated, are open declarations of a strategy which doesn't refer culturally to the past; indeed the choice of a “high” material like monochrome marble is almost subversive with respect to the artist's intention.

To understand the current dynamics in the field of sculpture, we must first reconstruct this art's genetic development. Traditional sculpture arrives at three-dimensionality and matter after having been conceived via the two-dimensional means of drawing and via the preparatory model's reduced dimensions. For Puckey (but I would venture, in general for the artists who are dealing with sculpture today) statues are obsolete as an expressive choice in itself. They are not the end product of a lengthy creation process; rather they come from hidden processes, they are something to work towards by going backwards, starting from our usual way of relating to things today, that is via the technological mediation of photography, film or video. We mustn't forget that Thom Puckey, influenced early on by the Viennese Actionism movement, was intensely active as a performance artist in the 1970s and early 1980s; this made trained him in the expressive possibilities of the body, in its relational abilities and in how to render their image. His apprenticeship can still be seen in the artwork he produces today and, especially, in his use of live models for his sculpture. Many long posing sessions are required to establish the position of each figure and during these a great many photographs are taken, snapped from every angle in order to verify the subject's validity and how it will take shape in space. So it follows that the artist treats each model as a true performer in two senses: in that, with her body, she incarnates a living, unexpected form constituting an expressive possibility, and in that she is an actress playing a role, lending her face and body to an otherwise abstract idea.

For Thom Puckey, as for the great contemporary artists, art is tending to lose its symbolic value but it undoubtedly suffers the difficult condition of having to go through the mourning of this loss. Thus a statue, albeit executed in a “timeless” material like marble, is not the concretization of an ideal, nor even of womanly beauty; on the contrary, a real beauty, like that of a young model, prefigures the statue she will become (which is certainly true also for the other contemporary artists, from Anthony Gormley to Marc Quinn, who have chosen or who have fallen into figurative sculpture). As a result the statues of today are -- like in Shakespeare's The Winter's Tale -- petrified individuals rather than idealized stones. Having abdicated from their role as symbols, they take on a new one as symptoms; they are the mute, enigmatic and obstinately opaque proofs of an obscure event, of an ever-present enchantment, or of a terrible trauma which refuses to stay buried in the past.

This “ontological mutation” of sculpture explains why these statues look like many snapshots capturing a fluid movement, or fixed frames of a movie whose preceding scenes and later denouement we can only guess. Why is it that the beautiful girl in A.V. with Knife and RPG-7 (2009) leans almost delicately – not on a myrtle trunk or on the trustworthy arm of a young Eros -- but on nothing less than a bazooka? Why does the Mitrailleuse ecstatically pump her beautiful elongated legs as she grips the lethal weapon she is clearly about to fire? What desire pushes the beauty in Figure Falling Backwards with Two Carbines (2010) to offer up a rifle in each hand almost as a gift? As she gazes ahead with the glassy look of an aggressive Joan of Arc, preparing to pounce with a pistol in her left hand and a sharp dagger hidden behind her back, is Isabelle Schiltz as Crawling Figure (2010) planning a merely erotic game or a terrible revenge? And most of all, what indecision is driving Kim de Weijer as Amputee with 3 Pistols (2010), seeing that, although she has three guns around her, she will never be able to pick any of them up with her stumps, not even to punish the person responsible for her amputated condition?

Perhaps it is precisely Kim's terrible mutilation which supplies an answer to the enigmas so ably staged by Puckey. If it is true that, as Deleuze said about Kant's moral philosophy, “he certainly has clean hands, it's a shame he doesn't have any hands” – here we could reverse it and say that here we are faced with a criminal with hands so clean that they've been cut off .That is to say that the lack, the existential void, an inexplicable subtraction are at the center of Puckey's poetic. To quote Blanchot (a key author for the artist) we are faced with the description of a strategic absence, of the “possibility of an impossibility.” And the same goes for all the other figures of Puckey's world: the extreme realism of the weapons leaves no doubt about their meaning, they are not symbols but true instruments of death; inscribed in their mechanism they already contain the destruction and the evil they will wreak. Through his sweet fully-armed girls, Puckey has succeeded in offering a credible description of the negative, of the self-destructive absence which occupies the petrified center of things.

Thom Puckey: Notes on my work

My project: marble figures, life size, female, nude, formally posed, and with attributes in the form of weapons (modern firearms and knives of varying types and sizes). My techniques are anachronistic, following closely those of the late 18th / early 19th century. The sculpture is modelled in clay; it is cast in plaster; the plaster is copied over into marble. The basic formality of the sculptures is that of the period just following neo-classicism. Anti-baroque, a strong feeling of formal stability, very 'posed' and composed, with nothing portrayed within the composition which could not in some way or another happen in real life. In this last sense I can accept the epithet 'realism'. The formal and stylistic qualities of sculptors like Canova, Bartolini, Houdon, Dupré etc. have had their influence on my work. I admire in particular the manner of translating flesh into marble in the work of these sculptors, something which later lost its way amongst the academicism of the late 19th century, and deserves to be restored. The softness and semi-transparency of good marble has a way of almost becoming flesh, in a way as much beautiful as it is obscene. It is also an ideal material for achieving exquisite contrasts between hard and soft, a quality I use more and more both in the figures and in the attributes round them. Many, though not all of the poses in my work are borrowed and adapted from sculpture and painting sources; a good example being 'A.V. with RPG-7 and Knife' which was adapted from Ingres' painting, 'Oedipus and the Sphinx'.

The nudity in my work is the area where I allow two types of obsession with the female nude to overlap with each other. The 'classical' obsession and the cultural obsession which surfaced in the 1960s and which has grown and grown ever since then. The one where the taboo is disguised and allowed by 'responsible' artistic tradition, and the other where the taboo is pushed against and aside by 'irresponsible', incorrect, commercial and sexual interests. I play directly into these two types of approaches to the nude, I temper the particular obscenity of the one with the particular obscenity of the other. I allow posed 19th century-like formalities bring a kind of order to 20th and 21st century violent indecency. The presence of modern weapons in the sculptures makes them seem contemporary in a cheap kind of way, this I realise. I like this suggestion of cheapness, I play into it. Chicks and guns. At the same time I let the matter overlap with the threatened, threatening, violent female figure of history and myth, from the Papin sisters, through to Diana, Lucretia, Judith and so on. I take great care with the details in the weapons, they need to be as accurate as possible within the carving process. The portrayal of weapons in war monuments has influenced me greatly, and there remains of course an adolescent-like fascination with these things which I rhyme with Klossowski's analysis of the nude in art, involving in his view a similar type of fascination ('The Decadence of the Nude').

Building my works up in clay remains an achingly long process, involving working from a live model, and allowing myself the freedom of a painter to begin with something before I'm completely clear about how I want it to end. I maintain flexibility in the development of ideas and idea-structures, letting the work generate its own ideas as the process goes on. The work must be open to being adapted, with grinder, saw, knife and welding machine, for as long a period as possible. I do the plaster-casting myself. The marble carving is carried out by Studio Stagetti in Pietrasanta. I'm present for long periods during the carving process, particularly in the final stages where I do much of the surface-finishing myself.